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Uzbek cotton under fire for child labour

25 Jun 2010


Uzbekistan’s cotton production has come under fire as forced child labour is still widespread in its fields. In spite of international campaigns, there is no sign of abatement in state-sponsored forced child labour used to harvest cotton in Uzbekistan.

A new report – Slave Nation – from the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) estimates that up to two million children were forced to pick cotton during the 2009 harvesting season in Uzbekistan.

EJF is a UK-based non-governmental organisation leading a coalition campaigning to bring an end to child labour in the Uzbek cotton industry.

Child rights campaigns spurred the Uzbek government to sign two International Labour Organisation conventions on child labour in 2008. But the on-the-ground situation remains unchanged.

Uzbekistan, an authoritarian state still ruled by a Soviet-era ruler, is the world’s sixth largest cotton producer, annually harvesting 1m tonnes of cotton from an estimated 1m hectares of cotton fields. The country is the world’s third largest cotton exporter, earning more than $1bn from the crop each year.

The Uzbek cotton farmers must sell their entire produce to state-owned trading companies at a price fixed by the government. The government shuts down all schools, colleges and several other offices during the three months harvesting season. School children, as young as six, teachers and local civil servants are then marched to cotton fields to harvest the crop.

For three months, the child workers and others have to live in deplorable conditions in crowded dormitories and pay for their own food from the paltry sum paid for their labour.

Bangladesh, currently a favourite sourcing destination for multinational clothing retailers, is believed to be the largest customer of Uzbek cotton. European brands accounts for two-thirds of garments produced in Bangladesh.

Vietnam, another preferred sourcing base for multinational brands, also figures high on the list of key customers of Uzbek cotton, which also include China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India, South Korea and Turkey.

The Uzbek government boasted in October 2009 that “there is a growing need for the Uzbek cotton fibre in south-east Asia, where the textile industry is rapidly developing”. International criticism did not deter more than 300 companies from 34 countries to attend the fifth International Uzbek Trade Fair in October last year and sign contracts to buy cotton.

Under pressure from campaigners, a number of retailers including Tesco, Wal-Mart, Asda, Marks & Spencer, Levi’s, Nike and Gap have said they will not support the use of Uzbek cotton in their products. Some of them, such as Wal-Mart, have officially banned Uzbek cotton.

But retailers do not have any mechanism to enforce the ban. The only way to prevent Uzbek cotton getting into their products is to establish a traceability system to track each ounce of cotton from the factory to right back to the fields. Currently, such traceability is applied only for organic cotton.

UK retailer Tesco has taken the lead by starting to implement a cotton supply chain traceability system by using a country-of-origin paper trail. EJF director Juliette Williams says that her organisation is working with 14 retailers to help them develop a traceability system.

“Pressure from companies is a key means to keep the issue in the spotlight and ensure that other influential decision makers take action,” Williams says. She says that engaging more and more companies and trade associations throughout the supply chain is an important next step.

But a more concerted action is needed to address the problem. “The international community must play its role in persuading the government to relinquish its grasp over cotton and the people who grow it,” Williams says.

Image: The cost of a cheap t-shirt
Child Labour